Human Rights: Outlook Gloomy

Article published on Feb. 21, 2003
community published
Article published on Feb. 21, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Spain: elections, immigration and Franco’s legacy

The cause of the fire which killed eight North Africans at a police station is unknown. It will remain unknown and the case will never be brought to court. This would be unexceptional if the blaze had occurred anywhere in Latin America or the Middle East, but it took place in Malaga, Spain (El País, 28/12/02). It is not an isolated incident: the tragic events at the police station could be seen as the sign of an incipient but increasingly worrying tendency to abuse the rights and privileges of citizens in general and of immigrants in particular. Democracy is under threat.

This threat is the result of a complex combination of political, social, economic and ideological factors. Although immigrants make up a far smaller proportion of the population here than in other European countries, the actual rate of immigration has soared in the past few years. Spain is the first port of call for migrants from various parts of the globe. For Sub-Saharan and North Africans, Spain is a relatively short distance from home; Latin Americans are attracted by the common language.

Some immigrants continue northwards in search of a more prosperous future or head for countries which still possess a fully functioning Welfare State. But many others stay on and demonstrate by their presence the limits of the Aznar Administration, which is incapable of treating the immigration issue as a complex affair of State, complete with social and economic ramifications. Instead of implementing integration programmes or long-term policies, Madrid has opted for strong-arm tactics: its “solution” involves demonising immigrants, reinforcing existing immigration laws, increasing arbitrary detention and stepping up media coverage of insecurity. The search for a scapegoat or for a common enemy to blame usually allows the Right to garner votes at election time; especially if the incumbent government has started to spring more leaks than the “Prestige”.

In any other society, it would be possible to put this attitude down to mere political opportunism or pre-electoral demagogy, as was recently observed in France or Berlusconi’s Italy. But it is a dangerous phenomenon in a country of weak institutions and fragile democracy, a country that twenty-five years ago had barely thrown off the yoke of the Franco dictatorship. This climate of xenophobia is rooted in an ideology present in the very fabric of Spanish society: the ghost of Franco lives on. This is plain to see among the descendants of his most faithful supporters (i.e. most members of the present government): they are intimate with the various mechanisms of power and although they may occasionally lose control of government, they will not relinquish the reins of power without a struggle. What is more, far from remaining confined to the halls of power, Franco’s spirit lives on in the common man and continues to permeate everyday life.

Only time will tell how deep into society the totalitarian cancer has penetrated: entire generations of Spanish children were brought up in a democratic blackout. Only time will tell how many years and how much effort is still needed to restore a sense of civic-mindedness and a culture of democracy in the Iberian Peninsula. The average Spanish citizen, even the most progressive, inevitably feels suspicious of aliens, of strangers, of foreigners. He is afraid that they will “take (his) job”. Neither political leaders nor leading voices in the media have made much of an effort to explain that migration, which is essentially an economic phenomenon, will not spin out of control. The fear of unemployment, which is based on ignorance, is a direct function of political and media attitudes. Protected by this unspoken consensus, silently legitimized by a large part of the electorate and by the unwritten orders of their political masters, the members of the security forces –where Franco’s admirers do not even bother to hide their convictions- play by two different sets of rules: justice for the Spanish, the cudgel for outsiders.

In a climate of fear that breeds fascists, what sort of guarantees are there that the very same institutions that demonise immigrants, will uphold the human rights of non-nationals? Spain only recently started partaking of the fruits of European union: a population that has the hunger of past decades etched on its mind and rumbling in its belly and a political elite with its roots in authoritarianism and a conviction that “something has to change for the situation to remain as it is” make for a gloomy outlook.

Let us not deceive ourselves that the Socialist Party’s (PSOE) lead in the ratings holds the promise of a better future. The same PSOE that created the “GAL” (anti-ETA units formed under the aegis of Felipe González) is quite capable of carrying on from where the Partido Popular (PP) left off. Transformed into an electoral machine concerned only with its own survival, the party does not hesitate to adopt the same tactics as its rival if it believes them to be on the path to success. Some expressions coming from the political left make for sad and shameful hearing.

For all the reasons mentioned above, it is vital that the international community, and especially the European institutions, follow the evolution of this situation in the years to come. It would not be surprising if we were to witness a rise in the statistics of abuse of police authority, harassment and irregular trials. Because even if there is a change in government this year, an effective transfer of power will take much longer. And who knows how long it will take to uproot the ideology behind it all.